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Let’s talk about The Lady and the Unicorn!


Did you read The Lady and the Unicorn?

I first read this book about 6 years ago. When I re-read it this spring, I was delighted to find that it was even better than I remembered. For some reason, this book’s fast pacing, high stakes, and real-life emotion really does it for me.

My take on The Lady and the Unicorn

I was really struck by how well constructed all the characters and their relationships are. I was especially intrigued by Geneviève’s storyline.

Geneviève is the noblewoman who dreams of becoming a nun. It’s her only desire. Geneviève sends her daughter, Claude, to a convent against her will. As Claude adjusts to her new home, she questions her mother’s understanding.

“Maman thinks convent life is much like her visits here, when the Abbess pampers her, preparing lavish dishes from food the convent would normally sell at market. I expect there is a lovely room for her to stay in too, full of cushions …There are no cushions on my seat, no tapestries to warm the walls … All this I had worked out for myself after only four days at the convent.“

Claude’s observation fascinated me. I didn’t know which character to trust. It pains me to think that Geneviève’s all-consuming dream might be a fantasy, or a mistake.

Or maybe Geneviève does understand convent life, and Claude is just thinking the worst of her mother. If that’s true, Geneviève has willingly sent her daughter to a very harsh place. Neither option speaks well of Geneviève, but then, she doesn’t have a lot of options to choose from!

Of course, Tracy Chevalier doesn’t explain. It’s just one of the book’s many unanswered questions.

So tell us…

  • Who was your favorite character?
  • What did you think of Nicholas and Claude’s relationship?
  • What did you like the most about the book?
  • Were you surprised by the ending?

Kat Siddle

Kat Siddle is a librarian and fashion school dropout from Vancouver, B.C. She blogs about beauty and sewing at



June 23, 2016 #

My favorite character was Alienor. I found her story to be really touching – especially her daily struggle to be useful to her family. Genevieve’s character was interesting to me as well, and I wish that her back story could have been more fleshed-out; I would have enjoyed having a better understanding of who she was. My least favorite character was Claude.

I didn’t quite buy into the relationship between Nicholas and Claude, and didn’t enjoy reading the sections that revolved around those two characters together. The rest of the book was so interesting and well-developed, I felt like the Nicholas/Claude storyline took pages away from the other characters/stories that I found more appealing and believable.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the technical aspects of tapestry weaving, and how a client’s budget played a major role in deciding which colors and weaving techniques were used in the finished product. The process of designing the tapestry was really interesting to me, as well.

I was surprised by how cynical the ending was. Claude and Nicholas’ “punishments” seemed a bit strong, though I suppose it could be seen as a reflection of the time period and its strict social hierarchies. I liked that the epilogue lets the reader know what ultimately became of the other characters.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. I would love to see the original tapestries that inspired this story.


June 23, 2016 #

I really enjoyed this book. I think Alienor may have been my favorite character, because I also love my garden! I really admired her for coming up with a way to get out of marrying the horrible dyer (and his smell!) but allowing her to stay with her family and keep her garden. It was a gamble, since her father could throw her out in disgrace, but I think she trusted the character of her parents enough to know she’d come out of it getting everything she wanted.
I couldn’t help but notice manipulation seems to be a theme of this story: Nicholas manipulates girls to get sex; Claude manipulates everyone to get whatever she wants; Genevieve manipulates her husband, Nicholas and Claude….and it goes on with various other people working behind the scenes to get others to do something. I duspect Nicholas and Claude might not have remained happy or faithful as a couple, because the flirtation and mystery was the most important part of their relationship. Each was really craving novelty, I think, and once it wore off, it would naturally end. I guess we’ll never know!
I especially enjoyed the storyline at the Brussels workshop. I loved how the work was described and how the tapestries evolve from Nicholas’ original paintings because of his experiences there.
I was a little surprised by the end, but I was fairly pleased with it. The fate of Claude is the fate of most girls of her class, and it might not be believable to have her end up with her artist. I was amazed she took in his daughter. Perhaps she was happy to have a little piece of him, as it were.
I’m looking forward to reading more by Tracy Chevalier!


June 24, 2016 #

I’ve read this book twice! It’s still on my nightstand because I tried to get my husband to read it. Perhaps it’s my turn again.


June 24, 2016 #

Favorite Character was Alienor. She was the most revealed and developed character for me.
The storyline at the Brussels workshop was lovely to read and my favorite parts of the book. The tasks, the division of labor, the lives of the people who create the beautiful tapestries. (I have seen the Cluny tapestries in Paris and toured the tapestry/Gobelin Manufacture).
Definitely didn’t care for the relationship between Claude and Nicholas. It seemed far fetched that a child of the patron would have had the exposure with the “artist.” I too didn’t enjoy the relationship of these characters.
The ending of the book was predictable because of the storyline of each of these characters.
The book was a fun read.

PS a secret of the Cluny Tapestries, in the millefleurs, the red background represents cut flowers and the blue background represents flowers planted in the ground… learned from the needlepoint school in Paris.


June 24, 2016 #

I suspect Claude’s impressions of her mother’s experiences in the convent were blown out of proportion. In one of Genevieve’s internal monologues she did mention preferring the simplicity of the convent to the comforts of her position. I have had the opportunity to stay at a convent for a retreat, and was staying in the same quarters that the nuns had. I highly doubt that they would cater to Genevieve by offering decorations and other comforts, and I doubt that she would allow them to, especially if her goal was to become a nun. I got the impression that Claude’s gripe was largely due to her total misunderstanding of her mother.

As far as Claude’s & Nicholas’s relationship…..I felt it was too contrived, honestly. I thought the author was pushing the “willful teenage daughter” trope too hard. Nicholas’s infatuation was believable, and he is a cad, but I couldn’t see him risking all just to fool around with the teenage daughter of his patron. Obsessing over her, longing to see her, coming up with ways to get a look at her, letting the image of her inspire the tapestries, sure. But considering he did a lot of work for the upper classes and court, he has to be somewhat intelligent. Even though they hint that he might have a reputation at court with the ladies, I got the impression that he might be considered a bit of a flirt, not that he had affairs with them.

As for Claude, she just didn’t seem like a real person to me, with the exception of the one scene under the table, where she’s questioning whether or not she really enjoys what’s happening. Otherwise, she’s almost a blank character, especially in comparison to her mother, any of the weavers, or Alienor.

To my mind, the story really didn’t begin until we got to the weaver family. The author spent a lot of time building them into living, breathing people, not just concepts.


June 24, 2016 #

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was particularly interested in the weaving of the tapestry and how very labor intensive it was in this time era, including the number of people it took and the length of time. Alienor was my favourite character. I was struct with her strength of character in overcoming to the best of her ability her disability. She was certainly a great asset to the tapestry industry of the time. Christine was also a very notable character as she was very talented at weaving (although not recognized by the Guild) and very supportive of her family. I will, undoubtedly, read this book again in the future.


June 24, 2016 #

I LOVED this book! I really love reading a story that is gripping while I am learning something – the weaving of the tapestries! WOW!!!!! I had no idea! it made me look up the tapestries and want to see them in real life. I LOVED Alienor and her garden and how the garden was such an important part of the tapestry – how they would use her garden to really make careful delineations of each kind of flower in the drawings and then distinguish which flowers and plants would go on which tapestry according to the sense and the type of plant.
I thought all the different relationships were believable and it was so helpful the way the author put one woman’s story next to the other. This made me see how each woman had to live in accordance with the prejudices of the times. Hard to face how each woman was bound to her position yet very realistic in the choices they made because of their status. Extremely painful for each woman in their own way but made me believe their choices because of the pain. It seemed to be a woman’s story. On the other hand,I was struck that Nicholas seemed to be so shallow that he really didn’t even ever consider his own feelings. I wondered if he was just not developed as a character or if men in his place in society just were like that?
I really liked the ending. I was so relieved that a nice man married Alienor! the adolescent first love part of myself was hoping that Claude would run away with
Nicolas because it was so sad how she lost her spark for life and accepted her role. But I felt it was believable that she would make that choice to stay in her noble status. I LOVED that Christine’s husband was a good man and gave her as much respect as he could in his times and position. Thank goodness for the epilogue because it made me feel better about how everyone faired!
Thank you so much for recommending this book. I especially love novels that have a story about art underneath the character relationships!


June 25, 2016 #

I liked Alienor the best. She seemed the most developed character and the one who acted most like I would expect a person to act, except I would have expected a little more internal conflict over her decision to get pregnant to try to prevent a marriage. If her entire life she’s been told that pre-marital sex is wrong and this is the dominant spoken belief of her society, how did she become so cavalier about it? The Paris cadre seemed flat, but I enjoyed the Brussels storyline.

Nicolas and Claude’s relationship felt contrived. Again, if your entire life is surrounded by the idea that pre-marital sex is wrong, how did Claude become so calm about engaging in it? Nicolas being a cad I understand since there are different standards for men, but even for a womanizer, he seemed to underestimate the risks of his actions. Their entire storyline could have been left out and the book would have been fine.

I liked learning about the life of a professional weaver the best.

I wasn’t surprised by the ending, but I think Alienor’s rescue was a bit rushed. Nothing but a few internal thoughts from her secret admirer and then, bam! Out of nowhere others are aware of his feelings and he comes to her rescue? The author could have fleshed out that process a bit more. Also, that everything worked out satisfactorily with the dyer seemed a too good to be true and that part of the story also felt rushed.

Over all, this was a decent book, halfway between learning and escapist fiction, but not one of my favorites.


June 25, 2016 #

I pretty much agree with the earlier comments. I enjoyed learning about the workings of the Brussels workshop and the rules and regulations pertaining to the weaving. I had no time for Claude or for Nicholas but felt that he showed a nicer side in his reaction to hearing of the plans for Alienor. I agree with Nethwen that parts were rather rushed. Overall I enjoyed the book.


June 26, 2016 #

I really enjoyed this book and I was amazed at how angry I was with it when I finished. It’s easy to forget that most people had very little control of their lives or their future, especially women. I had also forgotten about the Guild system and how severe and controlling it was to everyone involved and the duty most people paid to alliances. I am so glad that I was born in modern times and I completely understood Genevieve’s decision to join a convent and probably would have made the same decision if I were in her place. I agree with the other commenters who said that Alienor and the other weavers were the heart of this book, their stories were my favorite parts and I was so relieved that she wasn’t punished and found a way out of her horrible engagement. I was also a little too gleeful when Nicholas gets beaten up; up to that point I kept wondering if the author was going to make him pay for his sleazy behavior. Overall, it was a great recommendation and introduced me to a new author, so thank you!

Kate G

June 28, 2016 #

The Lady and the Unicorn was a very interesting book and one I wouldn’t have come to without your recommendation, Kat. Many thoughts of concerns of status to economics to mother-daughter relations.

I did not like Nicholas from the beginning. He ruins one woman’s life and then another’s because he is in love with the power of seduction. Both Aliénor and Claude are excellent targets for that kind of person–so sure of their passions while trying to circumvent a rigid system that controls their destinies.

I was fascinated by the mothers in the book and especially Genevieve. To me she was the clever diplomat who maneuvers behind the scenes for a future for herself and her daughter. She uses what power she has to save Claude’s life in a time when women were essential bargaining chips. The treatment of Alienor by her mother made for an interesting comparison with Claude and Genevieve. Here were four women longing to lead their lives and in some ways succeeding despite all odds. That Christine must practice her craft in secret is heart-breaking.

Learning about the rules of Genevieve’s life alongside the economics of life in a tapestry workshop were key reading experiences for me.

As for Nicholas, he was not fleshed out enough for me. More hints at his skill and painting technique would have helped. Perhaps because he was such a cartoon (no pun intended) I did not feel he redeemed himself in the end although I was relieved to see Alienor in a loving match.